What is the Decisive Moment?

Intro to the Decisive Moments blog

I learned about the decisive moment in my photojournalism class years ago. Coined by a renowned French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, decisive moment is a perfect juxtaposition of objects, movement, light, time, and place captured in a photograph. It captures and communicates the essence of whatever is unfolding in front of your eyes. One of my assignments for that class was to find and take photos of decisive moments. I remember walking around the university town on a cloudy Sunday afternoon with a borrowed point-and-shoot camera, looking for a decisive moment. It was both exciting and daunting to observe the seemingly familiar world around me, looking for exciting actions, emotions, or a perfect interplay of lights and shades that I could capture just as they were happening — not a moment sooner or later. Nothing was happening. There was nothing decisive about the way people moved around the town or interacted with each other. The light was awful and the spring landscape — after the last snow had melted and before the first blooms were popping up — seemed dull. After a couple of hours and a few uninspiring, distant photos of people going around their daily business, I gave up. I wasn’t the only one who struggled with the assignment. One of my classmates took a picture of a squirrel jumping off of a tree branch — he called it a decisive moment! for the squirrel… As our instructor dissected and critiqued each photo on a giant screen in the dark classroom, it became clear that none of us got it. We missed the decisive moment.

Later that year, while I was vacationing in New York, I took photos for another photography class with the same instructor. I was thrilled when I finally got my first decisive moment photo, picked out of hundreds I’d so proudly submitted after a summer of making ex-Soviet immigrants in Brooklyn uncomfortable with my camera in hand and a determined look on my face. They thought I was spying. I was on a quest to find the moment.

Brighton Beach: Where the past stays in the present. Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, NY. Summer 2007

Maybe I was in the right place at the right time. Maybe months of observing and training my eyes to look for something both invisible and conspicuous prepared me to seize that moment as it unfolded. Maybe I was finally able to see the essence of the time and place, cutting through all the clutter. Maybe I’d learned to read the light and use the camera properly. Maybe it was all of these things or none. The main point is that I never forgot the decisive moment, which while became a movement in photography, was first mentioned in the context of politics.

There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment, and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment,” Cardinal de Retz, XVII century. 

Photography, politics, philosophy, everyday life — decisive moments are all around us, of our own making and as the way of the cosmos. Photographers may see the decisive moment through the lens and treat it as the end within itself. Politicians may view it as a means to reach goals and (hopefully) to lead better. Philosophers — well, they can spin off so many theories and musings on the topic!

I’m not a philosopher, or a photographer, or a politician. I’m certainly not an expert on the subject matter. But I’m a writer, and the Decisive Moments blog is about the decisive moment stories.